Dissertation: Mutual understanding in love is attainable with non-native English

As the number of intercultural marriages rises, more and more couples use English as the relationship’s lingua franca.

“It’s often thought that when the partners learn to speak each other’s native languages, they will pick either language as their shared language. But when one is used to speaking a certain language to one another, it becomes difficult to change,” says researcher Kaisa Pietikäinen from the University of Helsinki. She has studied the interactions of these so-called ELF couples in her doctoral dissertation.

Not only English

The language of ELF couples is, however, not English alone.

“These couples have an open attitude toward language-mixing. Features from other languages become such an integrated part of their ‘couple tongue’ that after a while, they may not even notice when they switch languages,” Pietikäinen says.

ELF couples identify mainly as English-speaking couples, but they are also aware of the presence of other languages in their interactions.

“The previously held idea that a lingua franca can’t become a language of identification or that one can’t use it to express feelings doesn’t hold true when it comes to ELF couples.”

Ensuring understanding with creative means

Pietikäinen says that misunderstandings are not very common in ELF couples’ conversation. The couples invest in practices that support understanding, for example, they paraphrase difficult words and check whether the partner has understood them. ELF couples even utilise onomatopoetic expressions and drawing as an aid for achieving mutual understanding.

Silence matters in couples’ conflicts

Silence in ELF couples’ conflict interactions does not only mean that the partners disagree or that one is offended by what the other one has said or done. It can also be used to avoid giving self-incriminating answers, or in resisting the partner’s attempt to defuse the conflict with the use of humour.

“These observations have, however, nothing to do with the fact that the partners use non-native English between them. I’m sure these kinds of silences are very familiar for every long-term relationship,” Pietikäinen adds.


MA Kaisa Pietikäinen will defend her doctoral dissertation entitled ‘English as a Lingua Franca in Intercultural Relationships – Interaction, Identity, and Multilingual Practices of ELF Couples’ on 10 November 2017 at 12 in the reception hall of the University of Helsinki Language Centre, Fabianinkatu 26, 3rd floor.

Professor Johannes Wagner from Syddansk Universitet will serve as the opponent, and Professor Sanna-Kaisa Tanskanen from the University of Helsinki as the custos.

The dissertation is available as an E-Thesis.

More information:
Kaisa Pietikäinen